Education

Student Debt Gap Still Growing

Racial and income gaps that affect students’ ability to attend and pay for college continue to grow and contribute to more debt and less wealth for certain groups of students, according to an annual report on equity trends in higher education.

The “Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States: 2022 Historical Trend Report,” released Tuesday, showed that students from low-income families and those who received Pell Grants borrowed $43,983 to attend college, compared to $25,375 borrowed by students from higher-income families. Black students from low-income backgrounds borrowed $27,066 more than white students from similar backgrounds.

The report also showed that four years after receiving their undergraduate degrees, 48 percent of Black students owed more than the amount they originally borrowed, while 17 percent of white students did. Black students owed an average of 6 percent more, while white students owed an average of 10 percent less.

The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunities in Higher Education and the University of Pennsylvania Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy have jointly released the study annually since 2015.

“Rising inequality of income and wealth in the United States, and the increasing cost of higher education, threaten college access and students’ career pathways,’’ Pell Institute director Terry Vaughan III, one of the authors of the report, said in a statement. “Too many college students, especially students of color, struggle with high student debt and limited family resources that must be addressed through asset-based solutions.”

Growing student debt effectively erases wealth but does so at a vastly higher rate for Black students (37 percent reported a negative net wealth 10 years after earning their degrees) than white students (18 percent), the report stated.

Citing a 2001 United Nations declaration that higher education “shall be made equally accessible to all,’’ the authors built the introduction to the report around the theme that higher education should be considered a basic human right.

“Unfortunately, the statistics we track show anything but equal access to higher education in the U.S.,” Margaret Cahalan, co-author of the report and a senior research fellow at the Pell Institute, said in a statement. “If higher education is a human right, necessary for full participation in the knowledge economy, then basic structural changes are needed in our higher education system to ensure that each person has the right to develop their diverse talents to become full participants in the society.”

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